Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
My poems appeared across the UK, the US, Ireland, Canada and Mexico. I was selected as one of the 50 Best New British and Irish Poets 2018 (Eyewear Publishing) and won third prize in the 2018 Winchester Writers’ Festival Poetry Competition. I was also shortlisted for The New Poets Prize 2018, the Mairtin Crawford Award 2018 and The London Magazine Poetry Prize 2016.
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry aged fifteen after discovering the work of Arthur Rimbaud. I had hated poetry until then as the French way to teach poetry in school is very uninspiring: you just learn poems by heart and recite them standing in front of the class. I found Rimbaud’s work still relevant a century later and his language very powerful. I only started writing poetry in English four years ago after reading a biography of Sylvia Plath. I had already considered writing in English a couple of months earlier but didn’t allow myself to do so as a non-native English speaker. Plath’s poetry was very stimulating and I finally dared writing in English just for my pleasure before considering submitting my work to publications.
1.1 In what way was Plath’s poetry stimulating?
First, as a non-native English speaker, I found her work more challenging than the other modern poets I was reading. I think this is due to her peculiar use of the language in terms of vocabulary and metaphors. I was also attracted to the rhythm of her poems – a very distinctive feature of her work. She drew my attention to pace and pattern in poetry. I also admired her ability to master fixed form and free verse with such talent. But what I love the most about Plath is that she had a voice, or “duende” as Lorca called it. No matter whether or not you like her poetry, you cannot deny that something is going on and that she did it differently. I like the idea of poets having strong distinctive personas.
2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
I was studying English in university at the time so I had some knowledge of “the classics” of American, British and Irish poetry. But of course I hadn’t read them in school so I was less aware of any English poetic tradition. I see it as both an advantage and a disadvantage: I had to work harder to “acquire” this legacy, yet on the other hand I wasn’t burdened by it. Additionally, I was familiar with other literary traditions and had access to poetry in other languages, which is another way to improve your craft.
As for contemporary poetry, I was rather ignorant of what was going on apart from the “big names” like Seamus Heaney or Derek Mahon. I spent a whole year compensating for my lack of knowledge by subscribing to literary magazines and reading as much contemporary poetry as I could, although it wasn’t easy to access and I couldn’t attend events or workshops because I was living in Italy.
2.1 How do the “other literary traditions in other languages” differ from the “English tradition”?
In the case of French poetry, rhythm and metrics are radically different from English. I remember my American teacher in Paris trying really hard to make us understand that poetry which doesn’t rhyme is still poetry (!) and that rhythm plays a more important part in English poetry. We really struggled to get when words were stressed or unstressed, what an iambic pentameter or blank verse were. In French poetry, a line is defined by syllables instead of stresses (the alexandrine meter, an hexameter…) The natural English pattern is difficult to spot for a foreign ear. Traditional French poetry is also rather stricter in terms of forms (no wonder why they invented the villanelle and the sestina!). There is definitely more emphasis on musicality and rhymes than in the English tradition, but I suppose it is specific to Romance languages. For example, the traditional French sonnet should be irreproachable in terms of pattern (12 syllables with ideally a caesura in the middle), rhyme scheme (and with elaborated rhymes), form, and other musical devices (assonances and alliterations).
3. What is your daily writing routine?
I try to write prose for an hour “to warm myself up” before poetry, but to be honest I’m not respecting this routine these days… I have a huge batch of poems which need to be edited so I’m focusing on this at the moment. Normally I’m not as strict about how often or for how long I should write poetry each day but I have been very late so I need to catch up now!
4. What motivates you to write?
I believe I write for the sheer pleasure it gives me. The creative process, and talking about poetry as we are doing now, give me joy. Of course I also write when I don’t want to, or about things which depress me, but the initial impulse remains selfish pleasure. It’s physical, I can’t really explain why, but I have the urge to do it because I have no other choice.
5. What is your work ethic?
I try to have a strong work ethic with habits. I dedicate at least an hour or two per day to writing, but this schedule can become flexible if I need more time to work on a piece or if I’m not at all in the mood for writing. I naturally consider reading as an integrate part of being a writer, so I allocate some time to this activity. I don’t limit myself to poetry or literature as other subjects can generate a poem – my interests span from history to visual arts, religion to languages… I’m pretty open to anything.
6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I was more influenced by novelists when I was young. My favourite novels as a teenager were those with a strong imagery, a rich vocabulary and a refined style, like Patrick Süskind’s “The Perfume”, Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Virgin Suicides” and “Middlesex”, or Carole Martinez’s “The Threads of the Heart”. Beyond the plot, these authors created a whole world thanks to their inventive use of the language and its richness. I’m very sensitive to metaphors and the use of symbols, so these influences probably found their way into my poetry.
7. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Novelists I particularly admire include Zadie Smith and Elif Shafak. I like Zadie Smith’s style and the way she talks abouy human relations, especially between men and women. Elif Shafak’s novels always raise essential questions and their narratives are often close to tales. Both authors write about cultures I am not familiar with and this is also an essential part of what attracts me. I forgot to say that I’m jealous of Rachel Cusk’s prose style: I wish mine were as sophisticated! And her novels are almost philosophical.
I can only make a brief list of my favourite contemporary poets: Liz Berry, Kate Tempest, Paul Stephenson, Andrew McMillan, Malika Booker, Mary Jean Chan, Rakhshan Rizwan, to name just a few. I admire poets for their craft, the way they tackle universal subjects in a different way, their personal use of the language and imagery.
8. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Don’t give up. Keep writing no matter what. Don’t hesitate to analyse and “copy” the writers you admire to understand why they are good. Be resilient: you might face rejection a hundred times being accepted somewhere, but it’s worth it. Being a successful writer is all about perseverance. Yet learn from your rejections: if editors systematically reject the same piece, work on it.
10. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
Right now I’m editing around thirty poems I have completely neglected these past few months and it takes a lot of time. I was shortlisted twice for a pamphlet and poetry collection competitions this year so it might be a good time to assemble a pamphlet, bit I’m not sure I have poems that are strong enough, yet.. I’ll probably attend some workshops and writers groups first to get some feedback and guidance as this project might be a bit premature!